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Stress and Digestion- What You Should Know

Updated: Jan 9, 2021

Have you ever noticed that when you get a bad news or you are nervous due to an unexpected event you suddenly feel the urge to use the bathroom?

Your gut does more for you than digestion, absorption and elimination of food. The digestive system is packed with neurons that produce hormones that regulate our emotions and cognitive function. In fact, the constellation of nerves known as the enteric nervous system (ENS) in your digestive system is also known as the 'second brain'.

Did you know? Your digestive system is the largest producer of serotonin, the hormone responsible for your mood and affect.

Altered gastrointestinal microbiome

This is by far the most remarkable effects stress has on the digestive system. It is a well established fact in many scientific studies that chronic exposures to stressful conditions alter the diversity and survival of beneficial bacteria in the gut. The gastrointestinal (GI) tract functions are also under the influence of the gut microbiota and recent evidence suggests that the microbiome plays an important role in the GBA structure especially due to chemical mediators produced by bacteria resident in the GI tract especially the colon.

Gut-Brain axis (GBA) dysregulation

The gut-brain axis (GBA) is a two-way connection between the central nervous system (CNS) and the enteric nervous system (ENS) of the body. It involves direct and indirect neural pathways between cognitive and emotional centers in the brain with peripheral intestinal functions in your GIT.

This bidirectional communication within the GBA allow the brain to influence gastrointestinal functions like immunity, digestion, blood sugar control, motility and elimination of waste. Whenever the body is in a state of acute stress, there is an uptick in brain activity to shut down digestive processes and blood diverted elsewhere to increase chances o survival. When there is poor recovery from acute stress, a chronic state of low grade inflammation ensues and the body is in constant overdrive to maintain homeostasis. Persistent shutdown in GIT function can lead to many stomach problems, particularly if you eat on the run. Conditions like stomach ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, autoimmunity and certain cancers are commonly associated with increased gastrointestinal inflammation secondary to chronic stress.

Transient infections

These are usually a result of an imbalance between beneficial and pathogenic bacteria in the gut. When there is an overgrowth of bacteria like Clostridium, E. Coli or certain Streptococcus species there is a resulting infectious process in the gut popularly known as Small Intestine Bacterial Overgrowth (SIBO).

SIBO becomes an unpleasant ordeal quickly if left unchecked, here are the signs and symptoms to look out for:

  • Abdominal pain

  • Loss of appetite

  • Malnutrition

  • Nausea

  • Bloating

  • An uncomfortable feeling of fullness after eating

  • Diarrhea

  • Unintentional weight loss

If you suspect that you have an overgrowth of bacteria in your gut, consider doing a SIBO breath test with a functional medicine or naturopathic physician to confirm and get treated.

Altered Endocrine Metabolism

A sustained state of chronic stress usually leads to elevated levels of cortisol, the "stress hormone," and a corresponding reduction of hormones like serotonin and other neurotransmitters in the brain, including dopamine, which are both linked to depression and affective mood disorders.

Changes to Brain Structure and Function - Neuronal Plasticity

The ability of the body to restructure brain function and neural networks through growth and reorganization is an adaptive mechanism to allow the body to survive an external insult or stimuli. These may be minor changes like individual neurons making new connections, or systemic adjustments like cortical remapping. While neuronal plasticity is a good thing in any cases especially in children for brain growth and development, it could be detrimental under stressful conditions that may trigger semi-permanent changes to cognitive function and personality in adulthood as well as sympathetic activation or overdrive that alters immunological function making an individual more susceptible to physical illnesses like infections, autoimmunity and cancers. Stressful events may result in insomnia, impaired cognition, memory loss and emotional distress which are all possible effects of neuronal changes in the brain.

This is especially significant among children in early life while their brains are still growing. Many correlations between childhood trauma and aggressive behaviors in adulthood in many scientific research makes stress a significant source of concern for public health and safety in today's world.

What's the way out?

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Building strong communities during a pandemic

Stress management should be a public health effort to provide communities with resources to bounce back from stressful events and trauma at the individual level.

As we have all experienced right before our eyes a slew of stressful events on a global level, ranging from COVID-19 pandemic, racial divide, political unrest and lockdowns, it is imperative that we all take ownership of our health and peace of mind by seeking appropriate help and building stronger communities.

My NutriSHIFT 28-Days to Wholesome program features targeted stress relief techniques you can apply for yourself and your families in a fun and and practical way. Download the free guide here.

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